Handlebar choice, like saddle choice, is a personal thing. No one can tell you the ‘best’ handlebar, it’s a matter of what works for you – and a good way of finding out is trying some different types. On different bikes I own, I have flat bars, North Road bars and drop bars. Here’s what I think of them.

Flat handlebars

Fitted as standard to mountain bikes and many hybrids, flat bars are good for rough terrain or very poor weather, as the width allows very good steering control. The width of flat bars can be altered simply by sliding the grips and the other controls inwards towards the centre of the bars. However, for long distances, I find that my hands begin to ache due to the angle of the wrists. There is no opportunity to change hand position with flat bars, unless you fit ‘bar ends’ (right angle extensions).

North Road handlebars

The shape of North Road handlebars means they sweep back by about four inches and they rise up by about two inches. The swept back angle gives a more natural, relaxed hand and wrist position than flat bars. If flat bars are uncomfortable for the hands or wrists, as they were for me, North Road bars may be worth a try.

Since the ends of a North Road bar sits a long way back from the bar centre, this type of handlebar can, in effect, shorten a bike that’s a bit too long. The rise of the bar allows you to alter the fit of the bike in another way too: installed one way up, the bars give a position that is more upright than flat bars would give; installed the other way up, the position is between that of a flat bar and a drop bar. North Road bars tend to be wide and, due to the curves in the bar, they can’t be made narrower by trimming the ends, so its important to choose one that’s the correct width. This is where I’ve found difficulties, since I’ve never found one that’s less than 50cm end to end, which is a bit too wide for climbing and I live in a hilly place.

With North Road bars and their derivatives, there is endless variety in their deign, since the curvature, the rise and backsweep can all be varied by the designer. There are a few shown on this thread and lfgss.com.

North road handlebars on a mountain bike with rapid fire shifter

North Road handlebar on a rigid framed mountain bike with a rapid fire shifter

Drop handlebars

For long distance rides I like drop bars. They allow three positions: on the tops, on the hoods and in the drops. The brake levers are accessible from the last two of these, and can be accessed in the first position with the addition of interruptor levers. Each position has its advantages, for instance gripping the hoods makes climbing hills easier, while it is can save energy to ride in the drops when there is a head wind. But it is the ability to vary hand positions while riding that makes drop bars both practical and comfortable for rides of five miles or more.

Since drop bars place the hands slightly further forward than they would be with flat bars, they have the effect of lengthening the bike, so frames designed for use with drop bars tend to be slightly shorter, to compensate.

Here is a 4-minute video made by Georgena Terry showing how drop bars give a choice of riding postures. She also explains how to adapt the riding position on a bike by using a shorter stem or a taller one, to make a bike with drop bars feel more like one with flat bars.

Drop bars are wrapped with bar tape. This cushions the bars, which adds comfort and protects the rider’s hands from vibration. It also increases friction. I like cork tape. Bar tape needs changing from time to time because it wears out or becomes torn. There are thorough instructions on how to fit new bar tape so as to give it the longest life, at the Park Tools site. The guidance, which is explained on that page, is:

  1. Work from the bottom up.
  2. Begin by wrapping clockwise on the right, anti-clockwise on the left, but…
  3. Reverse direction beneath the brake hoods by crossing the lever body on the inside.

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